Like most Netflix subscribers, I felt jet-lagged for a week after staying up late to binge watch Bridgerton. I was enamored by the sets, fashions and tables even more than the romance. When it was over, I longed for more! I went back and studied the scenes at the tables, watched carefully as they dined and even did some freeze-frame screen shots when a grand table of delicacies was laid out. Then, one night while loosing sleep thinking about who-knows-what, I found myself going down the rabbit-hole of Regency Era Table Settings and Dining. I spent hours devouring everything I could find, from the scanned in pages of antique cook books to blog posts and dissertations by scholars of the period. I was fascinated and I hope you are too!
Let’s start with a short explanation of the Regency Period. The Regency Era (1811-1820) was a nine year period of time within the Georgian Era (1714-1837). The Georgian Era got its name from its Kings, George I, II, III and IV. The Regency Era got it’s name as it is defined as the period in which the Prince of Wales, later King George IV, became the ruling Prince Regent while his father, King George III, was ill. It was a time of opulence, romance, and beauty for the upper class. The Prince was young and handsome and enjoyed entertaining himself with indulgent dinners and parties. It was a booming time for the arts, literature and high-society, as we see in such a colorful manner in the series, Bridgerton.
From the fashions to the tables, life for the wealthy was decadent and fancy. I was taken with the importance of the dinner parties, a major societal transition during this time, and all of the shifts that came with its popularity. In response to advances in transportation of foods and new factories for silver, gilding and porcelain throughout Europe, protocols and decorations of the tables really evolved. For the first time, we saw rooms being used solely as “dining rooms.” These designated spaces were filled with expensive tureens, plates, centerpieces and serving pieces, all designed as a display of wealth and refinement, and the tablescape became a showcase.
Access to more exotic foods and spices called for more interesting pieces to serve them on. The tureen became a staple at every meal for both its beauty and practicality to keep food at least lukewarm. Kitchens were still built as far as possible from the formal rooms of the homes to avoid damage from fires. Guests were no longer expected to bring their own cutlery to a dinner and beautiful coordinated sets of silverware were placed in a dictated manner on the table for the first time. Napkins found their way on to the table in some households and, in others, the edge of the tablecloth was used! New rules of etiquette emerged as these new fashions evolved and a hostesses skill at getting them right could make or break her role in high-society.
While the rest of Great Britian continued to dine before three o’clock, dinner pushed to later hours for the wealthy who could afford to dine by candlelight. Five o’clock was often the designated time for guests to gather. They would all meet in a reception room and, once all everyone had arrived, the hostess would ask the highest ranking female guest to start to make her way to the dining room with the other guests following in order of their rank, something that was very clearly understood and defined in their circles. Sometimes meals would last for hours, typically with three courses. The first course was usually made up of soups and fish, a second course included mixed cooked dishes with exotic flavors and the third course would be full of meats and vegetables. All of this would be laid out in a style most often referred to as Service a la Francaise, similar to our modern buffets, but with all of the food set out by staff in a symmetrical and beautiful format in the center of the table. Each guest would help themself to the dishes that were nearest to them and attendants would help them reach the dishes they desired from the other sides of the table.
Another big change in dining during the Regency Era was the appearance of wine and water glasses on the table. Attendants, who, in the wealthiest households often numbered two to every one guest, would fill and clear glasses for the guests as the evening would go on. Toasts were in fashion and might go on for hours and hours! You can imagine, with dinners that went often went on for five to eight hours, that some of the guests might need help re-filling a glass! Small finger bowls with water were used to rinse and refresh between courses as well.
Once the savory courses were completed and cleared, the tablecloth was removed and a new set of dishes were brought out along with opulent and frivolous desserts to refill the center of the table. From garden scenes made completely of sugars to colorful candied fruits and jellies, these elaborate concoctions were designed to be dramatic and whimsical. After dessert, the ladies would exit and move back to a reception room while the men would stay for Port and other libations.
As we saw in Bridgerton, the seating of guests around a table followed strict protocols. The host would be seated at one “head” of the table and his hostess at the opposite end. The female guest-of-honor would be to his right and the male guest-of-honor to the hostesses left. Mixing male and female guests was a new fashion known as “promiscuous seating” and husbands and wives were never seated together. This alternating seating arrangement was a big contrast to the earlier times when women would sit at one end of the table and men at the other. Protocol also dictated that the hostess would start the first course with conversation to the guest on her left and would shift to chat with the guest on her right during the second course.
Just beneath the surface of all of this extravagance was a lower class who was suffering greatly. The high-society of the time carried on in such frivolity that, for all of the cultural achievements of the time, these amazing dining rooms and decadent meals were truly a small and very isolated part of the era. Yet, they are the part that defines the Regency decade. There was a population boom and immense poverty that the Prince Regent remained completely oblivious to. We saw glimpses of this in Bridgerton but, naturally, the grand celebrations and romantic Jane Austen style romances of the series are a welcome escape during a pandemic that has greatly changed the way we live and dine! During this pause in our lives, we stopped eating out as regularly and started taking stock of the treasures we find at home. We got to know our family members a little bit better because the routine family meal that so many of us longed for in our hectic pre-pandemic day-to-day schedules became the norm.
As our culture is going through changes, I wonder how history will look back on our dining rituals. I hope we will be known as the era when families slowed down and took the time to sit and eat together. I also hope that, when it is safe again, we will start to invite friends into our homes and entertain more often. It is one of the most genuine ways to show others that we care. Most importantly, I hope that we will be known as an era when we understood the plights of those who were struggling and we shared our resources. I see examples of that every day and, for as many hardships as we see and hear of right now, there is so much beauty in the love and generosity that is all around us.